TERRE HAUTE —
This week begins a new chapter in the impressive history of the YMCA in Terre Haute.
Thanks to an expansion by the Clay County YMCA, Terre Haute will soon have a new Vigo County YMCA for recreation, swimming, education and more.
“It’s a real honor” to be leading the YMCA as it returns to Terre Haute and Vigo County after a two-year absence, said Eleanor Ramseier, branch director of the new Y, which is in Fairbanks Park in a building originally built to house the YWCA.
To help drum up new members, the YMCA is hosting open houses this week on Tuesday from 8 a.m. – noon, Friday 1 p.m. – 7 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. The whole community is encouraged to attend and see what the new Y has to offer, Ramseier said.
The official opening date for the new YMCA has not yet been announced but will be within the next few weeks, Ramseier said. The Y is approaching its goals of raising $100,000 and signing up 320 new members before opening its doors, she said.
Last week, Y volunteers began handing out membership applications and the response has been encouraging, Ramseier said.
“We had people lined up at the door,” when the applications
became available, she said.
Membership sign-up opportunities this week will be at the YMCA in Fairbanks Park from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and at Baesler’s Market on Poplar Street from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.
On the right foot
The Clay County YMCA was one of about 20 organizations to contact the City of Terre Haute about using the 36,000-square-foot facility in Fairbanks Park two years ago when Riverbank Family and Fitness closed its doors for financial reasons, said Mayor Duke Bennett. Eventually, just three of those organizations submitted proposals to the Parks Board and the YMCA’s stood out, he said.
“It was very clear to the Parks Board, the City and everyone else that they were the best fit,” Bennett said.
To help the YMCA succeed in its new location, the City will pay half of the organization’s utility costs during its first three months of operations, Bennett said.
For the first year of its lease, the YMCA will pay no rent to the City, which owns the facility through its Parks Department. After that, all rental payments will be placed in a fund devoted to maintaining the facility, the mayor said. The Y will cover any maintenance costs in the first year, he said.
“We wanted them to get off on the right foot,” Bennett said. “I’m very confident they are going to make this successful. It’s really a good success story for the entire community.”
A rich past
Before Riverbank Family and Fitness operated the facility in late 2010, it was the “Terre Haute Family Y,” a brief marriage between the YWCA and the YMCA, which closed its downtown facility at 200 S. Sixth Street in 2006.
The building in Fairbanks Park was dedicated in 1976 as a YWCA. Before that, the Young Women’s Christian Association of Terre Haute was at 121 N. Seventh Street on what is now the Indiana State University campus. The YWCA moved into that three-story building in 1908. It was torn down in 1980.
That building housed the city’s first indoor swimming pool, said Becky Buse, director of the Terre Haute YWCA from 1985 to 1994.
The Young Men’s Christian Association has an even longer history in Terre Haute. The first efforts to form the organization took place shortly after the Civil War when a group of local evangelists rented a room on Wabash Avenue. They held services and kept a reading room at the location from about 1867 until 1872, according to a 1903 edition of the Terre Haute Daily Tribune.
Later, in the 1880s, two different groups formed YMCA organizations, both near Seventh and Wabash. They merged in 1892 and opened a new YMCA between Sixth and Seventh streets on Ohio Street. When it first opened, that new YMCA had 350 members, according to a 1939 article published by the Terre Haute YMCA.
Charlie Lee, a third-generation member of the YMCA board of directors, learned to swim at the YMCA as a kid the 1950s.
“We’d spend the day there,” Lee said. In those days, the YMCA had a traveling swim team, a traveling volleyball team, offered classes on karate and judo and even had an indoor shooting range.
“I learned to shoot .22s there,” Lee recalled.
Over the years, the Terre Haute YMCA offered day camps, state park trips, industrial tours, flag football and more. In 1970s, the local YMCA started offering racquetball, which was “the fastest growing sport in the country” at the time, according to a 1973 edition of the Terre Haute Star. It also served as a boarding house.
The Terre Haute YWCA, in its first 100 years, offered dancing, exercise, sewing, cooking, typing and swimming classes for girls and women. It also served as a boarding house, often for young girls first moving to the “big city” for new employment or to attend college.
The YWCA in Terre Haute, like the national organization, was ahead of its time regarding race relations, Buse noted. The local organization added two black women to its board of directors in 1948 and the indoor pool was open to black and white swimmers in 1952. The YWCA was also very involved in social service programs, such as English as a Second Language classes, the Working Women’s Clothes Closet, support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren and gymnastics and dance courses. The YWCA also organized the annual Harvest Moon Dance, Buse recalled.
“It was the first formal dance most girls went to,” she said.
When Riverbank Family and Fitness disaffiliated with the YMCA in 2010, it may have seemed the end of the story for the Y in Terre Haute. Now, more than two years later, it is clear that story will continue.
The near-death of the YMCA in 2010 was not the first difficult time for the YMCA or the YWCA in the city. In the 1930s, it also appeared the YMCA was finished, according to an article published by the local YMCA in 1939.
The organization’s building on Ohio Street was in disrepair and was condemned by local authorities in 1936. It was then that several of the organization’s younger, active members started work on re-launching the organization.
In 1937, the Y’s leadership purchased property at the corner of South Sixth and Walnut streets. The following year, a fundraising campaign supported by hundreds of “Terre Haute’s leading citizens from every walk of life” raised $260,000 in just 10 days. That’s $4.2 million in today’s dollars. That money allowed the new Y to open in 1940 and serve the community for the next 66 years.
The YWCA also had it’s own dark chapter. In 1961, a mysterious explosion killed Carl Ross, the YWCA’s janitor. More than 50 young women were living at the YWCA at the time, but none was serious injured.
The YMCA “was a very significant organization” in Terre Haute’s history, said Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick. Now that history continues with new leadership but a similar mission of serving the children and families of Vigo County.
“It’s an honor to bring the philosophy of the YMCA back into the community,” Ramseier said. The philosophy focuses on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility, she said. “Hopefully the Y will once again take a central place in the community.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.